In Memoriam -Alice Winn (Viking 2023)

There are some very strong debut novels which have already appeared in the first quarter of 2023- here’s another one.  I haven’t read that many World War I novels- I do have a little collection of fiction, non-fiction and poetry sitting on my shelves which I haven’t got around to.  I find it easy to put off reading about this time in history as it is so grim.  I was, however, intrigued by a strong publisher’s push and a description by Maggie O’Farrell as this as a “devastating love story between two young men on the Western Front.” I decided to grit my teeth and get on with what I suspected would be an emotional reading experience.

We first meet Sidney Ellwood and Henry Gaunt as sixth formers at Preshute, a public boarding school, perusing the school paper which produces a Roll of Honour for those killed, wounded and missing in the early years of the war, a conflict which you know they are inevitably going to be drawn into.  To begin with they are somewhat glib and their relationship is both caring and detached, maintaining a public indifference which masks a longing for one another.  Already they are children acting the part of grown-ups but nothing like their need to function in a completely different way once they sign up.

The description of battles, of everyday life in the trenches, of the limited chances of survival is exceptionally strong.  The action at times becomes overpowering.  A prisoner of war sequence is written as gripping thriller.  These boys should be rabbits-in-the-headlights, it is extraordinary to read how they were forced to adapt to these horrendous new experiences.  Life at home is also conveyed well, the anger the young soldiers must have felt towards their parents’ generation bothered by petty trivial matters without any understanding of what is being endured.  The young women handing white feathers to those too young to enlist or on leave and not in uniform I found absolutely chilling.  From time to time as the war advances  further issues of the school newspaper’s Roll Of Honour makes for very sobering reading.

I’m not sure how I feel about the author embracing aspects of the First World War that have become so familiar they are in danger of losing their power- the class divisions in the trenches, war poets, the footballs -at one point I became nervous that she would use the WWI football anecdote everyone knows but she states in her historical note at the end that she thought this would be too much.  I wasn’t totally convinced by her portrayal of the relationship between Gaunt and Ellwood and this for me was a little more tricky.  I appreciate I’m looking at a same-sex relationship from a modern perspective but I felt a little more could have been made of the issues regarding these very young men, forced to operate in a horrific adult world and exploring their feelings and sexuality within this.  In the war scenes their youth came across so strongly, in the love scenes less so.  I just think the balance was slightly off-kilter with these characters which meant I did not feel their relationship came across as real as I had hoped.

Reading about this war it is hard to comprehend how Europe survived after this.  I imagine it was largely, hard to believe this in our modern world, was because it wasn’t spoken about.  My grandmother lost a brother in the Somme, I cannot remember her ever talking about him.  This is the reason why, even a century plus on, I think it is so important that we have writers of the calibre of Alice Winn who can so vividly bring this dreadful time to life.

In Memoriam will be published by Viking on 9th March 2023.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

Good Hope Road – Sarita Mandanna (Weidenfield & Nicolson 2015)


Indian-born Sarita Mandanna was working long hours as in a New York finance company and conducting a long-distance relationship with her future husband living in Toronto and still managed to find time to produce her highly-acclaimed debut novel “Tiger Hills” an Indian family saga which I am convinced I had on my To Be Read shelves but cannot find (Does this mean that these shelves are getting out of control or was this book, as I now suspect, one of the victims of my Easter Book Cull?)

Anyway, to make up for me probably having taken this debut to the charity shop unread (I now want to read it) I decided to spend a few hours with her second novel, the very different “Good Hope Road”.

This novel plunges us straight into the mud and horror of the trenches of the First World War.  Mandanna avoids cliché by having Obadiah Nelson as a narrator, an African-American who has enlisted into the French Foreign Legion.  In his words the experience becomes as chilling as one would expect.

Central to the novel is his relationship with New Englander James Stonebridge and it is when these two characters are together that the novel really sizzles and when time runs out on this relationship I couldn’t help but feel slightly cheated.  Parallel to Obadiah’s account is a third person narrative which follows James from the early 1930’s, back at home and part of the damaged generation, refusing to discuss his experiences and in a brooding relationship with his son.  For the veterans the war is being lived over and over again, not just through shell-shock but through political issues, a march to Washington to get what is due through the much delayed Bonus Bill and also in the build-up to World War 2.  There is a striking change of pace between the two narratives which is very effective.  In the 1930’s sections Mandanna writes lyrically and vividly, but uniting the sections is the theme of hope; for survival during the war and for getting a life back together after it.

It is convincingly done and there is an epic sweep to this novel which works well.  The historical events of America’s participation during the war and inter-war years are generally well incorporated into the plot.  The focus upon Americans in the French Foreign Legion provides an original slant.  All in all this is a solidly impressive second novel. I’m just going to recheck my shelves for “Tiger Hills” again.


Good Hope Road was published in the UK by Weidenfield and Nicolson in 2015.  A version of this review was published in New Books issue 86 and on the Nudge website